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When Security is Bad for Democracy

The case for the death of congressional safe seats.

If there is one thing everyone can agree on after last week's midterm elections, it is that we are entering a new age of politics. But that new age might be defined less by whether our government is led by Democrats or Republicans than by the fact that an increasing number of seats in Congress—and the House in particular—are more competitive than in recent times. The permanent campaign became a feature of American politics long ago, but, with the disappearance of many “safe seats,” we are now facing a permanent campaign almost everywhere.

Writing in Polity in 1974, Yale political scientist David Mayhew described the “vanishing marginals”—the fewer and fewer House seats that were truly in play every election. Mayhew was noting a phenomenon that would only become more pronounced in the decades that followed. Between 98 and 99 percent of House incumbents who stood for reelection were successful in 2002 and 2004, making those the least competitive House elections since World War II. As recently as 2004, only 7 percent of House elections were close enough to feature winners who won less than 55 percent of the vote.

But, since 2006, the pattern has changed quickly and dramatically. In 2006, 22 House members lost reelection, and 23 incumbents were defeated at the polls in 2008. Last week, according to the most recent information, 53 incumbents were defeated (another four lost in their parties' primaries), making the incumbent reelection rate the lowest since 1970.  

Even many incumbents who did hold onto their seats found themselves in competitive races. Barney Frank, who faced minimal opposition in 2002, 2004, and 2006, won with just 54 percent of the vote this year.

Of course, this doesn’t just affect the fate of individual incumbents; it also makes it easier for the House as a whole to change hands. The altered dynamic surrounding safe seats is one of the reasons why we have entered an era of what Slate’s Christopher Beam has called “seesaw politics.” The last three elections saw partisan turnovers of 31 seats (2006), 24 seats (2008), and more than 60 seats (2010). The last time there were three consecutive elections in which at least 24 seats changed partisan hands each time was six decades ago.

Why have things changed? More and more money is being spent on elections, which might mean more and more seats are the targets of well-financed opposition. Although self-identified Democrats are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates and self-identified Republicans are more likely to vote for Republican candidates, independents have varied their votes dramatically in the past few elections. Nate Persily has blogged at Balkinization that more competitive elections might be the result of successful redistricting in 2002, and Rick Pildes has noted that it might be because polarization has made local elections depend more on feelings towards national political parties than they used to.

A related possibility debated by political scientists is that polarization is driving higher turnout—but driving that turnout asymmetrically. The intensity of feeling among voters about Bush and Obama has brought huge numbers of people to the polls in recent elections—people dissatisfied with Bush in 2006 (estimated as the second-highest turnout in a non-presidential election in the past 25 years) and people dissatisfied with Bush and energized about Obama in 2008 (the highest presidential turnout since 1968). The same dynamic recurred in 2010: The disdain among various constituencies toward Obama was so intense that some estimates suggest turnout last week was even higher than in 2006.

Whatever the explanation, the reduction in the number of safe House seats is probably good for American democracy: If the parties have to defend nearly all their seats every cycle, instead of concentrating on overstimulated swing districts, they will deliver more political information to voters across the entire country. Both major party candidates in many districts will have to run advertisements, host town hall meetings, and participate in debates. In addition, a Congress that changes hands more often is less likely to become complacent, staid, and corrupt—and it may be more open to experimenting with new programs and acting on new ideas.

The substance of what happened in last week's elections may have been disappointing to liberals. But, in the long run, a world without safe seats will be something to celebrate.

David Fontana is associate professor of law at George Washington University.